My First Christmas Bird Count

ArrayDecember 17, 2019 at 8:36 am

By Wildlife Biologist Sarah Spencer

I have a confession to make: I’ve never participated in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC)…until now. I don’t have a good excuse why I never before donned my binoculars to collect data during this nationwide event that occurs every December, I just never prioritized it. That all changed on a recent warm, rainy, Saturday in December.

Two days before the CBC was to take place near my home, two of my friends and colleagues, MDIFW wildlife biologists Danielle D’Auria and Adrienne Leppold, invited me to join their effort. They planned to start early close to their homes. Then we’d all meet at our office and continue along the route. I had no idea what I was in for except that I should plan on being out all day and have binoculars, a data recording device, and a field guide.

The night before, temperatures across the state hovered at freezing when the rain started, leading to slick roadways and challenges for motorists. My fingers were crossed that it would warm up more and the forecast was overestimating the amount of rain we’d be getting. I woke up the next morning to rain.

Wearing my best rain jacket and boots, I picked up my rain pants when I got to the office. When my colleague showed up at the office, they greeted me with, “This is your first Christmas Bird Count? Really? Well, it’s the worst weather I’ve ever seen.”

I joked, “Do we need our life jackets?”

She replied that she was already on her second raincoat for the day. Our third participant arrived and we went over the plan of what areas we were going to cover and how. By now it was pouring rain and the wind was gusty.

As we departed, we drove slowly with windows down through areas where we knew there’d be bird feeders. As I eagerly put my window down, I wasn’t expecting the sudden gust of wind and heavy raindrops to the face.

At our first stop, we jumped out to scope out the bird feeder scene and within a few minutes we were drenched, our binoculars were covered with water, our hands were cold, but as we hopped back in the car we were all laughing. We turned up the heat settings in the car and continued along our route.

“Ring-billed gulls….ummmm….6, no wait, 7.” “Stop, I hear chickadees.” “How many?” “Two? No three, I heard a third.” “Mallards! So many mallards. Fourteen, sixteen, oh wait, there’s another big group over there. See them?”

A quick stop for a gas fill-up and hot drinks, then we continued on our way.

“Ooh, there’s a male cardinal!” “Uh oh, there’s a tree down, we can’t go that way, but maybe there’s another way.” “What’s making that sound? I should know that one, it’s so familiar!” “Pshhhht Pshhhht.” “Robins! Five of them! They’re eating the crab apples on that tree.”

Back in the car, we talked about what would be great sightings on a warm, rainy day in December. “You know what would be neat? If we saw a heron! I’ve never recorded a heron on my CBC before.”

As we made our way through the greater Bangor area, the forecast was for the rain to subside by mid-afternoon. We started to notice the persistent rain start to dissipate. It was time to make our way to a site one of my colleagues said has been extremely productive in the past. Feeders with great wintering habitat of shrubs, forest, and fields adjacent to them: cardinals, chickadees, downy and hairy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatch, house finches, purple finches, blue jays, sparrows, and others, all at the same site. Then, there was a challenge.

“Hey Sarah, do you see that? That bird with the yellow?” The mystery bird had a heavy bill much like that of a finch or grosbeak. As I struggled to identify it, my eyes were drawn upward...

“Look, look! HERON!” I said in a not-quite whisper. Noted.

Now, back to the mystery bird. After all, this is a pretty serious effort to document all the species we’re seeing and the heron was a quick ID. We consulted the field guide which affirmed her thoughts: Dickcissel. According to The Birds of North America, this species is abundant in the grasslands of the central U.S. in the summer and winters in Central and South America. It’s not uncommon, however, to find them off course and in a flock of other species!

Pictured above, a dickcissel.

We continued the effort until the final minutes of daylight were winding down. All we could see were dark silhouettes. By the time we made it back to the office, it was dark. We still needed to compile our data sheets and add up the numbers of everything we saw and where.

You see, the Winter Atlas effort of the Maine Bird Atlas began December 14th, so in addition to keeping track of what we saw in the CBC area, we were also keeping track of them by Atlas blocks. There are approximately 4,000 Atlas blocks across the State of Maine and our CBC covered four of them.

When we sorted it all out, collectively we saw 32 species and 1,149 individual birds on our route. Most importantly for me, I finally participated in this event which first started 120 years ago! Despite the weather, I had a fantastic time participating with friends.

Not bad for a rainy, windy day in December.

If you’d like to participate in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, it runs from December 14, 2019 through January 5, 2020. For more information and to see if there are any CBC circles near you, click here.

Click here to see how you can get involved with the Maine Bird Atlas.